generous justice

Of all the Timothy Keller books which I have read, Generous Justice may well be his finest and most important.

Keller's very last sentence captures his purpose with the book: 'A life poured out in doing justice for the poor is the inevitable sign of any real, true gospel faith.' (189). There is something ever so significant here. Over the past 10-15 years I have watched, with admiration, a generation arise which 'pours out in doing justice' far better than my generation ever seemed to do. And yet mingled with the admiration has lingered a tiny little reservation. It can appear that embracing justice is about being edgy - edgy in theology, edgy in style, edgy in communication. An iconoclasm can take hold of people. They can become known for being 'agin' things. The people travelling in their wake can become burdened with guilt because they cannot maintain the same pace or priority. Now while some of this is necessary, at times I have wondered what has happened to 'real, true gospel faith'. Keller's approach is different. Embracing justice is not about drifting to the edge as much as it is about deepening at the core.

If a person has grasped the meaning of God's grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn't live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God's grace, but in his heart he is far from him (93-94) ... Grace should make you just. If you are not just, you've not truly been justified by faith (99) ... My experience as a pastor has been that those who are middle-class in spirit tend to be indifferent to the poor, but people who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitate toward the materially poor (102) ... the gospel changes the identity of the well-off, so that they have a new respect and love for the poor (104) ... I would like to to believe that a heart for the poor 'sleeps' down in a Christian's soul until it is awakened (107) ... (and it isn't awakened because) we tend to try to develop a social conscience in Christians the same way the world does - through guilt (107).

I think the argument he makes is a profound one. A number of specific features impact me...

1. Lovers of Isaiah 58 will be arrested by the way Keller highlights the less familiar, but equally powerful, passages from Job: Job 29.12-17 and Job 31.13-28.

2. The 'quartet of the vulnerable': the widow, the orphan, the immigrant/refugee, and the poor (4). It is inconceivable that we can bring pleasure to God's heart and glory to his name, if we overlook this quartet in our midst.

3. Keller's case for Jonathan Edwards (in 1733, 'The Duty of Charity to the Poor' sermon) providing his favourite exposition of the Good Samaritan makes for compelling reading (see pages 68-75).

4. I loved the way he described the Creator God as an artist, involved in the 'weaving of a garment' (172) which inherently conveys the importance of relationship: 'God created all things to be in a beautiful, harmonious, interdependent, knitted, webbed relationship to one another' (173), creating shalom. But then sin and evil destroys the fabric. 'The only way to re-weave and strengthen the fabric is by weaving yourself into it ... re-weaving shalom means to sacrifically thread, lace, and press your time, goods, power, and resources into the lives and needs of others' (177). Brilliant image! Then Keller illustrates this with the story of the disproportionately large deaf community on Martha's Vineyard and how people 'changed their culture in order to include an otherwise disadvantaged minority, but in the process made themselves and their society richer' (180). Great story! Have they made the movie yet?!

5. In virtually every chapter Keller makes a comment, almost in passing, about the difference in the way the Left and the Right - 'conservatism' and 'liberalism' - approach matters of justice. I recently posted something on how hard I find voting in national elections (and how bemused I am by Christians who find it so easy!) because I like bits of both. Keller reassured me. He comments how the various perspectives are each 'partly right' (158), but not fully right. His conclusion is that 'no current political framework can fully convey the comprehensive Biblical vision of justice, and Christians should never identify too closely with a particular political party or philosophy' (163). I concur!

6. Chapter Five ('Why Should We Do Justice?') and Chapter Six ('How Should We Do Justice?) were highlights for me. In answering the 'why?' question, Keller reaches for two basic motivations: (a) cultivating 'a joyful awe before the goodness of God's creation' (82), punctuated by 'honoring the image' (82-88, via Aristotle, ML King, and CS Lewis) and 'recognizing God's ownership' (88-92); and (b) responding to 'God's grace in redemption' (92-100). It is creation and redemption, yet again, that does it. It is core stuff, not edgy stuff. In answering the 'how?' question, Keller reminded me of someone I had forgotten (and who had a huge impact on New Zealand back in the 1980s), John Perkins. 'When Perkins tied social reform, economic development, and vigorous evangelism all together into a seamless whole, he confounded both the secularized liberal civil rights establishment and the conservative churches.' (116, emphasis mine).

7. Chapter Seven is about 'Doing Justice in the Public Square': 'I propose that Christians' work for justice should be characterized by both humble cooperation and respectful provocation.' (158).

When all is said and done, this book will be valued by the edgy justice-doer who is open to further instruction on the way to 'real true gospel faith'. The big worry lies with those who claim to be Christ's, but who are not authentic justice-doers. What Bible are they reading? What gospel are they engaging? What grace are they embracing? What Jesus are they following?

nice chatting



Rhett said…
Cool - I got this and and his other recent book, King's Cross, from Book Depository a while back and they're approaching fairly quickly on the 'to read' list. Sarah is finding King's Cross 'life-changing' (her words).
Paul said…
Yes, King's Cross is also very worthwhile ... rest up and holiday well!

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